"I'm working on the new me."
I don't know...something is off here. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost, the latest Tom Selleck-starring noir mystery based on the character created by author Robert B. Parker. Originally airing this past May, Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost is a step back in the series (is it because it's the first movie not specifically based on a Parker novel?), committing the sin of repeating itself while providing vagueness this time around rather than the series' expected intriguing complexity. No extras this time around.
If possible, former Paradise, Massachusetts Chief of Police Jesse Stone (Tom Selleck) is in even more spiritual danger than the previous time we saw him. Kicked off the force for good, Jesse has no job, no prospects...and he's drinking again. His dog, Joe (Reggie), can only look mournfully at his...not "master," really―more like his roommate, refusing to offer Jesse even the small comfort of sitting with him on Jesse's bed. Down-on-his-heels Jesse has to ask his shrink, Dr. Dix (William Devane), to put his sessions on the cuff, while asking disgraced former councilman and now used car salesman Hasty Hathaway (Saul Rubinek) for the continued loan of a car. Jesse has at least something positive in his life: uncomplicated sex with Hasty's attractive secretary, Thelma (Gloria Reuben). But it's not going to lead to love...by mutual consent.
Jesse can't even rely on his former Paradise police force friends for much support: still-damaged Luther "Suitcase" Simpson (Kohl Sudduth) is soon to be out as acting police chief, while Rose Gammon (Kathy Baker) has her own problems, being demoted to secretary by the new, officious, tourist-minded police chief, William Butler (Jeff Geddis). Only State Police Commander Healey (Stephen McHattie) offers a tangible life-line to faltering Jesse: Healey is convinced a young man accused of killing a liquor store clerk is innocent, and he wants Jesse to look in to it...before the perp is convicted of murder. Jesse agrees, but for a price: he wants a badge this time to help out Healey, and with that badge, Jesse bluffs his way around the non-investigation of the suicide overdose of Jesse's troubled young friend, Cindy Van Aldan (Eileen Boylan). No one believes this is a case of foul play, but Jesse can't leave it alone, and he'll start with Boston drug-dealer Gino Fish (William Sadler) for some answers.
PLOT SPOILER WARNINGS
I've reviewed all the CBS Jesse Stone movies save the first one (you can read those reviews here), and I still feel it's one of the best series of telemovies I've seen from any decade of television production. However...Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost gets more wrong than right in repeating the series' formula, coming up with an initially tantalizing mystery that soon reverts to warmed-over elements from previous entries, with a frankly insulting ending that completely cops out. As I've written before, I don't believe it gets much better than watching the increasingly skilled Selleck dolefully move his massive frame through these latter-day noir mysteries as he banters in that compulsive, elliptical manner. Selleck co-wrote this telemovie with Michael Brandman (as he did for a couple of the other Jesse Stone outings), but perhaps it's time to bring in someone else to write the next entry, because too much here in Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost plays like the last movie, Jesse Stone: No Remorse. Jesse is at rock bottom, getting drunk and depressed on a daily basis. His friend Healey once again drops in out of the blue to offer him a job: investigate a convenience store robbery and murder suspect who's about to be railroaded into a guilty verdict. Jesse works on this and another unrelated crime (the overdose of his young friend), which ruffles the feathers of the powerful people in Paradise, while he receives concerned asides from his cop pals. It's all too familiar by this point. If these Jesse Stone movies are going to continue to maintain their high quality, they're going to have to break the character out of his rapidly-calcifying zeitgeist, and the storylines out of the same rut.
And quite frankly, I was a little surprised that what seemed like an obvious potential subplot here―Jesse as the prime suspect in his friend Cindy's "murder"―was not considered. Cindy's car and body were found on the lonely access road to Jesse's house; she had sent him a letter expressing her affection for him, and through the flashback sequences, we see that she was a beautiful girl who was shown innocent affection by a much older man. You don't have to dig up Columbo to figure out someone might put two and two together there. Wouldn't it seem natural for the constantly alluded-to "powerful" people in Paradise who don't want Jesse around, and who especially don't want him looking into this death, to seize on this circumstantial evidence and brand Jesse at the very least a predator? That might have provided Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost with some much needed dramatic conflict, giving Jesse something to fight against in Paradise. Instead, his investigation of Cindy's death leads him to a violent showdown with the pimp/drug dealer who at least started her on the road to her own self-destruction, while his other investigation shows a similar sideways slant that proves the perp innocent of murder...but guilty of rape. The latter development, while intriguing, is dropped almost immediately without much discussion, while the former leads to a rather silly, violent finale.
I was also disappointed with some of the off-kilter dialogue that kept popping up here―something I'm not used to in these well-written Jesse Stone telemovies. When Jesse solemnly states he'll get his job back, intoning with a perfectly straight face, "Fate won't do this to me," I couldn't think of anything less Jesse Stone-like than that line. "Fate" won't do that to him? I thought the notion of indifferent, pitiless, sometimes crushing Fate was the guiding philosophy behind the Jesse Stone movies? I didn't buy any of the forced dialogue between Jesse and Thelma, either, which seemed too heavy-handed and faux-sparse/erotic to be believable (nor did I appreciate the whopper that Jesse lays out about most white people being uncomfortable around black people―sweeping, one-sided generalizations about race relations I don't need from a TV mystery). Worst of all are the bracketing scenes where Jesse watches movies on TV, giving us dolts obvious cues to Jesse's state of mind. At the opening of the film, he's watching The Bridge on the River Kwai ("What have I done?" "Madness! Madness!"), and at the end, it's none other than Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with Jimmy Stewart croaking about lost causes as Jesse silently soaks it all in. Jesus, using clips like that to semaphore a character's feelings is "Obvious Cinematic Symbolism 101." It's a clichéd gimmick at best, and far too simplistic for what are usually fairly dense, complicated telemovies (and this gimmick's hidden danger that newer filmmakers never seem to understand? You put clips of classic movies like Kwai and Smith into your film...and all you do is help show people how unfavorably your little movie stacks up against them).
I did enjoy all the scenes with Sadler's Gino Fish; it's a complex character, given uncomfortable sympathetic traits that challenge the viewer (I love his admonishment to Jesse that if they're going to remain "friends," Jesse has to allow him his personal vanities and double standards―that's good writing). How ironic is it, then, that Gino's first statement to Jesse is that he's off his game? That becomes apparent for the whole film when the finale comes lumbering around. Forget that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense with the phoney suspense built up about Gino calling Jesse's "dead zone" cell phone to warn him about the Russian pimp hitting him; that kind of illogic is pretty standard in these kinds of films. But seriously―couldn't someone have come up with a different way of filming the assault than by ripping off (for the umpteenth time) The Silence of the Lamb's green night vision goggles effect? That's how Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost is going to end? With Jesse showing up behind his killer like Jason out of Friday the 13th, mowing him down with a shotgun? And then the movie just ends with Jesse calling the cops? With no resolution to any of the strings played out in the film (particularly the whole "powerful people in Paradise" angle that didn't want Cindy's suicide meddled in)? I expect a lot more from a Jesse Stone telemovie than that.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.